A Library of Congress Visual Sourcebook, Christine Macy, W.W. Norton/Library of Congress.

The latest volume in the Library of Congress Visual Sourcebook series is an impressive — not to mention comprehensive — treatise on the dams of North America. Organized into eight sections (by watershed), the book showcases over 800 photographs and illustrations of dams of every shape and size, from the largest federal projects to the smallest, privately-owned structures.

While the emphasis is on design and engineering complexities, the author — dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Canada’s Dalhousie University — also pays considerable attention to history, as the proliferation of dams in the twentieth century largely tracked the development of the United States. Notably, Macy also remarks on the ways dams succeed (diverting and restraining mighty rivers, and supplying metropolitan areas with water, for instance), as well as the ways in which they’ve failed (by inviting ecological disaster and other collateral damage).

To be sure, “Dams” is designed to appeal to architects, engineers, designers and students of those disciplines, but its also accessible to the casual reader with an interest in awe-inspiring constructs like the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee, both built during the golden age of dam building, which began in the 1930s and ended circa 1970. Of course, the political landscape has shifted in the decades since, and dams are no longer at the forefront of development, leading Macy to conclude: “Dams could have a future as promising as their history is inspiring, but for this to happen, some radical rethinking of their potentials and their effects needs to take place.”

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